Mortal Kombat has a bit of a reputation in the film world. While the franchise is universally beloved in the gaming sphere, its movie adaptations aren’t quite so revered. The original Mortal Kombat movie from 1995 is a sort of “so bad, it’s good” affair, but 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is simply “so bad, it’s bad”
Now, a new challenger is entering the ring. Warner Bros. is releasing a new Mortal Kombat film this month, which acts as a reboot for the silver screen version of the series. The film’s first Red Band trailer made it clear that the new film adaptation is bigger, badder, and more gruesome than previous attempts.
Digital Trends spoke to the cast and crew of the latest film to find out what’s different about the new take. The answer is, well, just about everything.
Compare the trailers for the original Mortal Kombat film and the latest version and the difference is night and day. Gone are the cheesy one-liners and questionable line deliveries. The new film looks positively epic by comparison, with a grittier tone that matches that of the game. That’s no accident according to director Simon McQuoid.
“It’s different on pretty much every level,” says McQuoid. “It looks completely different, the characters are completely different. What I wanted to infuse and bring into this was a visual power, a cinematic scope, and a brutal authenticity to the way these characters look and feel. I think stylistically, we’re just much more of a dirty film than those were.”
Much of the project comes from a reverence for the source material. Many of the film’s actors grew up on the video games, including Ludi Lin, who plays Liu Kang.
“My history with the game started when I turned the bulk of my allowance into quarters to play it in the arcade,” says Lin. “I snuck it home to play on my Sega Genesis when my mom wasn’t looking because those fatalities felt just like a guilty pleasure.”
A passion for the game comes with a heightened sense of responsibility. The cast and creators wanted to do justice to the franchise’s storied history and its dedicated fan base. That meant studying the games closely to bring its most iconic characters and moments to life. Catch the “Get over here!” that caps off the trailer and try not to cheer.
But getting too precious with the source material would pose its own risk. McQuoid says that it was important to know when to stray away from the games to avoid creating scenes that would just look plain silly in a movie.
“We weren’t really setting out to take the exact fights and move them across,” he says. “What we looked at was the ideas within those fights and used film techniques rather than video game ones. There’s a lot of stuff in the game where if you tried to do it in reality, it would come up crap. It looks great in the game, but would look like shit in the film.”
Select your fighter
What makes the film especially notable is its focus on characters. The games feature a ton of legendary fighters, each of which has decades’ worth of history behind them. Getting a character like Scorpion right would require a deep dive into a series that’s been churning out lore consistently since 1992. That created a bit of homework for actors like Max Huang, who plays Kung Lao in the film.
“There are YouTube videos that are hours long just explaining the lore of one character!” says Huang. “What’s so cool about this IP is that there was so much work and material that we had to explore and make our own. Everything was kind of given to us, and I think we created something very special.”
Having over two decades’ worth of groundwork makes a big difference. Paul W. S. Anderson’s original film came out in 1995, just a few years after the first game was released. For a screenwriter or actor, there just wasn’t much to draw on at that point. There were only two Mortal Kombat games prior to 1995, and they weren’t quite the cutscene-heavy spectacles that titles like Mortal Kombat 11 are today. The characters largely had to be drawn from the ground up, which didn’t go terribly well at the time.
That’s no longer an issue in 2021. Take a character like Sub-Zero, for instance. He’s been fleshed out tenfold throughout the series and is no longer defined solely as “the ice guy.” Joe Taslim, who plays the villainous Sub-Zero in the new film, has a much deeper understanding of the character.
“I don’t just want to play Sub-Zero as a badass, I want to play him as a human,” he said. “I researched a lot from the lore. The story is that his father was cast out to the Outworld and fell in love with an American woman. Their sons were abducted by Lin Kuei at a young age and trained to be assassins. That’s huge for me as an actor. You need that information to embody a character so they feel alive, not just Sub-Zero with the costume and ice powers.”
There’s a lot of give-and-take to the creative process of the new film. Its cast and crew have paid close attention to the lore and worldbuilding of the game to create a more thorough adaptation that wasn’t previously possible. That’s balanced out by a willingness to cut the elements that just wouldn’t translate to film cleanly.
It’s not about making a perfect on-screen replica of the game; it’s about finding the beating heart of the franchise and yanking it right out of its chest.
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